About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Providence and Economics

I am grateful to the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity for providing me with a copy of Transforming Capitalism.

In an earlier post, I promised to review Peter S. Heslam’s Transforming Capitalism: Entrepreneurship and the Renewal of Thrift (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2010). Now I’ve decided not to review it as such, for there is very little in here that deals with providence as a Christian doctrine. Instead, what follows is my reflection on how a firm belief in God’s providence could influence responsibility when it comes to personal finances – an area in which I am mostly irresponsible.

It’s sensible to offer a quick outline of Transforming Capitalism. Heslam insists that capitalism is not necessarily A Bad Thing. While capitalistic practices need continually to be transformed if they are not to become methods of exploitation, such practices are also desirable if society at large is to be transformed. (Thus the phrase ‘transforming capitalism’ has a double sense.) The important question to ask is not, ‘What causes poverty?’, but ‘What causes wealth?’

Heslam attends to the ideas of thrift and entrepreneurship. Thrift is not equated with miserliness but with the sensible use of money to promote well-being, whether in the wider community or even in the so-called nuclear family. As an example of the former, Heslam refers to John Wesley’s practice of living on £28 per annum and giving away the rest of his income. Elucidating the latter, Heslam recounts the story of a family who saved for a washing machine and bought one in the middle price range (which had good environmental credentials) even though they had enough for a top-end model. The moral of the story is not to be stingy or profligate, but to use money wisely, considering a range of factors – not just the financial.

Heslam turns to entrepreneurship, pointing out that at its heart is the need creatively to take risks. Successful entrepreneurs are those who are ‘good at innovating, risk-taking, experimenting, seeing opportunities, taking responsibility, maintaining hope and courage in the face of setbacks, challenging conventions … and exercising judgment in taking difficult and complex decisions.’ (p. 15). Entrepreneurs are those who are able to use their talents to solve problems and make the most of any situation. Heslam cites Exodus 31:1-11 to support his point that the Holy Spirit can work through the spirit of enterprise for the well-being of society, and he suggests that God’s initial act of creation is the very model of entrepreneurship.

Despite my limited understanding of economics and finance, I appreciate what Heslam is saying here. And it’s a challenge for me; for while I recognise the importance of thrift and agree with the notion that talents should be used to promote well-being, I fail mostly to live by these ideals. After a day of frustration, it’s so much easier to ignore the food stored in the fridge and order a pizza or pop to the chippy. (A poor example, maybe, but for me, having a takeaway is instant gratification to soothe the aches and pains of everyday life.) But how are thrift and entrepreneurship linked to the doctrine of providence? Heslam writes,

Providence, …, provides a sound basis for the hope and courage in the face of risk that characterize the spirit of enterprise. Embracing providence as the foundation of a flourishing economy represents a true market fundamentalism that allows profit, people and planet to be held in creative balance. Stewardship is weakened without providence because it is then not clear on whose behalf we are stewards, nor the true significance of what it is we are stewarding, nor whether there is anyone beyond ourselves and our reputations who sees and cares how we exercise that stewardship.
Transforming Capitalism, pp. 27–28
All well and good, but Heslam’s nod to the doctrine of providence is, in my opinion, somewhat superficial – no, not superficial; that’s the wrong word. Perhaps under-defined is a better fit. It is difficult to see how Heslam understands providence or how it impacts attitudes to thrift and entrepreneurship, unless providence is thought merely to be a watching power or a safety net in the face of failure. What Heslam generally writes in Transforming Capitalism is good, but I believe his allusions to providence require further development if they are to be useful.

However, in highlighting the need for both thrift and entrepreneurship, Heslam does suggest a place where economics and providence can meet. Much of what Heslam writes emphasises the need for true community, however one understands this to be manifested. Assuming that the Christian Church, the body of Christ, is the place where God’s action is most eagerly and self-consciously recognised, the thriftiness and entrepreneurship of each local church in its particular community is perhaps the way that God’s providential dealings with the world is made public in the economic sphere. As each local church models a community transformed by the Holy Spirit, a community of the new creation in the middle of the old, its attitude to finances and enterprise demonstrates the presence of God in that place. This, of course, assumes that providence is not some mysterious gloss on world-process or similar (as Heslam’s own take might be interpreted), but that providence fundamentally is connected to the lordship of Jesus Christ, entailing a ‘new creation’ way of living together in community with Christ as our head.

All of this – as simplistically as I’ve put it – can be drawn from Heslam’s wider points about thrift and entrepreneurship, but I think the providence element, if it is to matter, needs to be stated more explicitly.

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